From: Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life (1839). Translated by Margaret Fuller
Author: Eckermann; translated by Margaret Fuller
Published: Hilliard Gray and Co. 1839 Boston


  THIS collection of Conversations with Goethe takes its rise chiefly from an impulse natural to my mind, to record in writing any part of my experience which strikes me as valuable or remarkable.

  I felt constantly the need of instruction, not only during the earlier stages of my connection with that extraordinary man, but also after I had been living with him for years; so that I continued to fix my attention on the import of his words, and to note them down, that I might continue all my life to use them.

  When I think how rich and full were the communications by which he made me so happy for a period of nine years, and how small a part I retain in writing, I seem to myself like a child who, stretching out his hands to catch the refreshing spring shower, finds that the greater part of it runs through his fingers. But, as the saying is, that each book has its destiny, and as this applies no less to the manner in which a book is produced than to its effect upon the world, so may we use it with regard to the origin of this book. Sometimes for whole months the stars were unpropitious, and ill health, business, or various toils needful to daily existence, would prevent my adding a single line to the record; but then arose again more kindly stars, and health, leisure, and the desire to write, combined to help me a good step forwards. We must also remember, that, where persons are domesticated together, there will be intervals of indifference; and where is he who knows always how to prize the present at its due rate?

  I mention these things to excuse the frequent and important chasms which the reader will find, if he read the book in chronological order. To such chasms belong many, now lost, good things, especially my favorable words spoken by Goethe of his friends, as well as of the works of various German authors, while, in the propitious days, remarks not more important with regard to others have been carefully recorded. But, as I said before, the destiny of a book influences even its origin.

  For the rest, I consider what I do possess in these two volumes, and which I have some title to regard as the peculiar ornament of my own existence, with deep-felt gratitude as the gift of Providence, and have confidence that the world with which I share it will also feel gratitude towards me.

  I think that these conversations not only contain many valuable explanations and instructions on science, art, and the practical affairs of life, but these sketches of Goethe, taken direct from life, will lend important aid to complete the portrait which each reader may have begun of him from an acquaintance with his manifold works.

  Still I am far from imagining that the whole inner man of Goethe is here adequately portrayed. We may, with propriety, compare this extraordinary spirit and man to a many-sided diamond, which in each direction shines with a different light. And, as be turned to each person a different side, and was in each relation a different being from what he was in another, so I, too, can only say, in a very modest sense, this is my Goethe.

  And this applies not merely to his manner of presenting himself to me, but to my incapacity for fully receiving and reproducing him. In such cues, each ray is reflected, and it is very seldom that, in passing through the individuality of another being, nothing of the original is lost, and nothing foreign interfused. The representations of the person of Goethe by Rauch, Dawe, Stieler, and David, have all a high degree of truth, and yet each bears more or less the stamp of the individuality which produced it. If this be observed of bodily things, how much more of those objects of spiritual observation which are in their nature fleeting and intangible! And as my efforts are directed to a subject of the latter description, I trust that those who, from the nature of their minds or personal acquaintance with Goethe, are fitted to judge, will not misinterpret my sincere exertions to preserve as great fidelity as was possible.

  Having given what seem to me necessary explanations as to the object of this work, I have still something to add as to its import.

  That which we name the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something little, narrow, limited; rather is it, if something simple, yet by its nature comprehensive also, which, like all manifestations of a deep and wide-reaching natural law, cannot so very easily be expressed. It cannot be got rid of by clothing it in words, not by statements upon statements, nor the contradiction of them. Through all these, one attains only an approximation to the aim. So, for instance, Goethe’s detached remarks upon poetry often have an appearance of one-sidedness, and indeed often of positive contradiction. Sometimes he lays all the stress on the material which the outward world affords; sometimes upon that which is given by the inward world of the poet: sometimes the greatest importance is attached to the subject; sometimes to the mode of treating it: sometimes all is made to depend on perfection of form; sometimes form is to be neglected, and all the attention paid to the spirit.

  But all these seeming contradictions are in fact, only successive presentations of single sides of a truth, which, by their union, manifest completely to us its existence, and guide us to a perception of its nature; and I have been careful in this, as in all similar cases, to give these seemingly contradictory remarks exactly as they were called out by different occasions, years, and hours. I confide in the insight and comprehensive power of the cultivated reader not to look at any one part by itself, but to keep his eye on the significance of the whole, and by that means to bring each particular into its proper place and relations.

  Perhaps, too, the reader will find here many things which at first seem unimportant. But if, on looking deeper, he perceive that what is in itself trifling, often serves as introduction to something of real importance, or a foundation to something which belongs to a later period, or contributes some slight but indispensable touch to a sketch of character, these will necessarily be, if not sanctified, at least excused.

  And now I bid a loving farewell to my so long cherished book, wishing that its travels through the world may be a source both of benefit and pleasure to those who shall receive it.

WEIMAR, 31st October, 1835.

All Sub-Works of Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life (1839). Translated by Margaret Fuller:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.